Teaching Physiology and Technology To Work Together
He might have been a rock and ice-climbing prodigy by the age of 17, but Dr. Hugh Herr’s business cards also once read “Inventor.” These days, he is an Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences and heads the Biomechatronics research group at the MIT Media Lab, but innovation is still a core part of his career and his passion. “A lot of my identity is around invention,” says Dr. Herr, who spoke with the IPO Education Foundation ahead of its 2014 Awards Dinner on December 9. There, he will receive the Association’s 41st Inventor of the Year Award, which honors inventors whose creations have made a significant impact on national economies or quality of life.
To say that Dr. Herr’s work has lived up to that description would be a wild understatement. A double amputee himself, his advanced bionic prostheses have helped Boston Marathon bombing victims such as Adrianne Haslet-Davis, U.S. veterans and other amputees to return to life as usual. He has been heralded by Time Magazine as a “game changer,” and has received numerous awards, including the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in Technology, and the 13th Annual Heinz Award for Technology, the Economy and Employment.
Here, Dr. Herr discusses the role of patents in the extensive process of developing and commercializing his devices and what the Inventor of the Year award means to him—in some regards, he says, “the greatest award I’ve ever received.”
Can you describe your research and technology for us?
My laboratory at MIT is divided into three initiatives. The task of bionics involves the engineering of extreme interfaces, and there are three extreme interfaces. One is dynamic—that’s the challenge of building a limb, for example, that matches the mass, volume and dynamics of the biological counterpart. Another is mechanical—how do you attach machines to the body in a viable, comfortable, healthy manner? The third interface is electrical—how do you communicate with the nervous system in a bi-directional manner? Other people outside my group are working on chemical interfaces with the body. In each of those areas we do research and have various inventions. One can find IP in all three areas.
“In minutes the person is saying things like, ‘I have my life back, I have my limb back.’”
From a very high level, what makes my research group unusual I suppose is that we combine science and technology. In a single group we are doing projects that discover the underpinnings and principles of how humans move, from a morphological and neural control aspect. And at the same time we build regenerative and mechatronic structures that emulate that biological capability. So our designs are very motivated by nature. By doing that we are able to develop systems that more seamlessly interact with the human user.
For example, with respect to the BiOM prosthesis that has now been commercialized by the company BiOM Inc. of Bedford Massachusetts, clinicians fitting the bionic limb have reported instances where the prosthesis is fitted to the patient in a matter of minutes. In minutes the patient makes comments such as, “I have my life back, I have my limb back.” If it’s a foreign object or moves in a way that’s not natural, it would require an enormous amount of training to teach someone how to use the tool. Bionic technology extends beyond mere tool use; it comprises a seamless integration between mechatronics and human physiology, departing from pre-bionic era technology being only separate lifeless tools.
How does one of these devices differ from something like the Flex-Foot Cheetah, which became famous during the 2012 London Olympic Games?
My company’s BiOM T2 System device is easily distinguishable from all other prior prostheses from just an energetic perspective. The BiOM T2 System is the first prosthesis that injects its own mechanical energy into a person’s gait. So it’s an energy source, whereas all other commercially available systems are more like a bicycle—at the end of the day, the bicycle moves because of muscle action from the human. So all other prostheses are human-powered. There’s really no true emulation of the lost muscle. The BiOM T2 System actually emulates that lost muscle function. What the foot-ankle muscles do is provide a lot of energy and power in walking or running, so the BiOM with every step gives more energy out than it absorbs. The person’s biological muscle plus the BiOM motor produce the walking-running step, whereas in all other systems it’s only the person’s muscle that provides that energy.
Can you describe the process of inventing one of your prostheses?
Developing and commercializing an advanced bionic joint is very costly in terms of time and money. To mitigate such costs, my MIT lab is building a physical simulator of human-machine interaction. With such a tool, one can simulate any prosthetic or exoskeletal design, and simultaneously measure performance measures from the human—how much energy they’re using, their center-of-mass dynamics—anything—and very quickly assess whether a particular human-machine design is functional, and the degree to which it is effective. Once design optimality has been achieved using the simulator, one can then set out to build the autonomous wearable device. The researcher then knows that it works and exactly how well it works. What’s done now is a person comes up with an idea and, because building the autonomous device is so difficult, it takes years to test any given idea. With the simulator, one can test an idea in one or two weeks, whereas without the physical simulator, it would take four years to conduct the same experiment, and millions of dollars.
Why are patents important to what you do?
“The moment they discovered there was no IP,
the meeting ended in about 30 seconds.”
I have a story: A professor that I knew years and years ago invented a prosthetic joint. It was a great design—very functional, very needed in the world clinically. He didn’t patent the device. He published papers and his students submitted theses describing the device, so because it was publicly disclosed and enough time had gone by, it wasn’t possible to patent anymore. When he tried to make this knee available to patients, potential manufacturers were very excited, because it was a highly functional knee. But the moment they discovered there was no IP, the meeting ended in about 30 seconds. And the reason is that those manufacturers would have had to invest $20 million to commercialize what was a prototype system, and there was no way they could justify that to their Board of Directors without protection in the marketplace. So, especially with a medical device, it is very problematic to translate technology and actually make it available to patients without IP. In the medical device industry, because of reimbursement and regulatory hurdles, it is exceedingly expensive to launch a commercial product. It is therefore essential—a requirement, a necessary condition—for a company making such profound investments to acquire and maintain IP.
What would you say to those who are critical of the patent system?
For technology and industries that move slowly, such as the medical device industry, innovation is very, very expensive, creating a critical need for patents. The counter to that are industries that develop technology at a very rapid pace—for such industries patents become less critical. So the value of IP generally is really a function of the type of technology and specific industry dynamics. As long as for-profits are required to produce products, sustainability requires product patent protection, particularly for slow-moving industries.
What does the award from IPO mean to you?
“A lot of my identity is around invention, so in that regard,
this is the greatest award I’ve ever received.”
It’s absolutely delightful to receive this award. I’m humbled when I looked at previous award recipients; it’s quite an impressive list. When I was younger, my business card actually said “Inventor.” A lot of my identity is around invention, so in that regard, this is the greatest award I’ve ever received.
The IPO Education Foundation’s 2014 Awards Dinner will take place December 9 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum & National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. For more on Dr. Herr or the Awards Dinner, click here.